Melbourne’s safe injecting facility under spotlight

Melbourne's first safe injecting room. Photo: Michael Barnett/ABC

Since its opening mid-last year, Melbourne’s safe injecting room in North Richmond has received significant media attention.

The consensus is that the facility is saving lives and reducing substance use on the streets.

North Richmond Community Health, which is operating the facility as a two-year pilot project, has reported that 650 overdoses have been successfully reversed.

Yet community concern persists that the facility is centralising Melbourne’s drug scene, with North Richmond being described as a “honey pot” for drug traffickers.

North Richmond Community Health medical director Nicholas Clark says that while the facility is reducing health-related harms from injecting drug use, it was never intended to eradicate the drug market or provide law enforcement.

Though there is far greater awareness, and sometimes sympathy, for people who find themselves using substances to cope with trauma and manage mental health issues, drug trafficking is rarely discussed.

Yet the single biggest reason people turn to drug trafficking is to create income, often because there are few legitimate means of economic participation available to them.

In some cases, a person might be unable to maintain employment due to disability, mental health issues or homelessness.

In others, a person might have developed a substance use problem and is then approached to make some extra income by dealing. Feeling that there are no other options available to them, they agree.

A person’s situation can be further complicated if they get a criminal record. Once convicted, they have a permanent mark against their name. Unless their employer is unusually compassionate, they are very unlikely to be hired.

This exclusion pushes people towards criminal activity. The 2018 Illicit Drug Data Report shows 32% of illicit drug offenders had been arrested in the previous 12 months, most commonly for drug dealing, 26%, while 56% reported having gone to prison at least once.

A safe injecting room will not thwart the drug market. While the economic system exploits and excludes the most vulnerable people in society, there will be supply and demand for illicit drugs.

As the struggle for egalitarian and inclusive economics continues, saving lives and improving health outcomes is an appropriate stop-gap solution to an enduring social problem.

[Christine Hepsie is a social worker in Melbourne.]

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